The average human lifespan is absurdly, outrageously, insultingly brief: if you live to 80, you have about four thousand weeks on earth. How should we use them best? We all know there isn’t enough time… We are obsessed by our lengthening to-do lists, our overfilled inboxes, the struggle against distraction, and the sense that our attention spans are shrivelling. Yet we rarely make the conscious connection that these problems only trouble us in the first place thanks to the ultimate time-management problem: the challenge of how best to use our four thousand weeks.
Oliver Burkeman is author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and a columnist. In his new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver undertakes an uplifting, engrossing, and deeply realistic exploration of our battles with time. Adam Grant has described Oliver’s new book as being, “The most important book ever written about time management.”
In this interview, I speak to Oliver Burkeman about our relationship with time, and how best we use the astonishingly brief moment we are on this earth. Oliver draws on philosophy and psychology together with his own deep research to help realign our relationship with time, liberating us from the tyranny we face.
Q: How should we best understand time in context of human lifespan?
[Oliver Burkeman]: Our lifespan is 4,000 weeks.
I’m guilty of trying to shock people with the headline figure, because I do think that the broader message here is, I hope, quite liberating and even relaxing, but that’s the sort of second step of the argument. The first step of the argument is just like, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ when you express it in weeks, there is something ridiculously brief about even a long life and that concentrates the attention.
You don’t have to spend every moment of your week panicking, asking yourself, am I doing something amazing enough with this hour?’ I think that’s a recipe for self-consciousness and stress, nor is it meant to be a recipe for despair, where you just sit in the chair and can’t do anything, because it’s also depressing to contemplate.
Q: What has been the consequence for us to be so deeply tied to the clock?
[Oliver Burkeman]: I made the argument in the book that this way of thinking about time that we experience, would be much less common in pre-industrial world, and there may still be, some very isolated cultural contexts today where it persists a lot more. There wouldn’t have been this sense of time as a separate thing…. your life is lived with this track running alongside it, that you must keep up with or extract the most value from, that seems like it gets faster, the older you get… all these things come from this notion of sort of an alienated relationship with time.
The idea of time as something distinct from us, which we are then having to fight and struggle with all the time would simply not have existed to the mediaeval English peasant, who would have existed much more in what anthropologists call ‘task orientation’…this sense of time where the rhythms of life just emerge from what you are doing, which tends to often be very closely yoked to the natural world, the changing seasons. They wouldn’t have seen themselves as trying to subdue or struggle with or maximise the value of this property, they would have just been this property.
Q: When did we get trapped in ‘busyness’ and productivity?
[Oliver Burkeman]: The efficiency trap is very modern, but it’s now become a holdover from the Industrial Revolution. If you only relate to time, as if it were a certain kind of ‘thing’, like a natural resource… something that you could maximise, then you’re going to be in a perpetual state of psychological struggle because you won’t be using the right conceptual tools to live in time.
On the efficiency trap, implicit in almost any efficiency-based productivity technique is the idea, you’ll get through stuff faster and do more stuff, you’ll eventually get into this position where you are handling everything that comes at you in a calm and effective way. However, if the supply is infinite, (that’s true of emails), then you’re never actually going to get that position of mastery over time. What’s going to happen is that you just get busier and busier and move faster and faster!
We treat productivity tools as if they’re going to lead to our salvation, they’re absolutely not going to.
Q: How can we adapt to technologies which exist in vastly different timeframes to us?
[Oliver Burkeman]: There is this strange conundrum whereby email is a wonderful way of sending messages at a much higher volume than one ever could have done before, but precisely because of that, it attracts an even higher volume than you’re capable of handling yourself.
We use these tools to do things quicker – but that never help us get on top of everything because they systematically increase the size of the ‘everything’ – It’s a rigged game!
Being ‘online’ does feel sort of ‘godlike’, it does make you feel that the limitations of material human existence don’t apply quite so much. This godlike feeling explains some of the terrible behaviour on anonymous social media. It also gives you this sense that you somehow could become one with the metaverse. Here’s the thing. Whilst a computer can… You can’t actually type a sentence in zero seconds. That also really increases the sense of impatience and frustration that we have… it feels like we’re so close to kind of transcending time, that the remaining difference between ourselves and these amazingly fast working physical organisms, and the internet, is even more frustrating.
Q: Why is patience important? And where has it gone?
[Oliver Burkeman]: Patience is really the act of letting things take the time that they take. It becomes more important as the world accelerates and as we have the opportunity technologically to do things faster and faster. There are many things that can’t continuously be accelerated, or which can only be accelerated to a certain point. Patience is what stops you getting sucked into warp-speed. We have this tendency now to try and make reality move faster than it can because, at some level, we want everything to happen instantaneously.
I’ve been really influenced by Harvard Art Historian, Jennifer Roberts, She gets her students to observe a painting for three hours solid. Historically, patience (as a virtue) was primarily preached to the powerless and dispossessed. It was a way of saying, you just settle for your lot, while other people do more exciting and rewarding things. For example, women in the home versus men in the public sphere would be one example of that. Now, patience is a form of control. Everything happens at light speed, the ability to resist that acceleration in certain contexts (reading a book, planning for your business…) is going to need to be a deliberate act – it adds so much value to your experience and outcome. Patience will get increasingly important as social acceleration continues.
Q: Why does procrastination matter?
[Oliver Burkeman]: Because we are finite, in a world of actions that exceed our capacities, on the one hand, procrastination, if you define it rigorously enough, is inevitable and happening all the time. If procrastination is neglecting things that matter, we are always going to be doing that in a world where there are more things that matter than you can find time for at any given point. That’s freeing and useful, because then you get to see that it’s a question of choosing what to neglect at each time. If you got that great business idea while you were hiking in the countryside, you were procrastinating on one thing, and you were not procrastinating on another thing, and you made a choice and it turned out that, that choice was a wise one in the in the context. For the same reason people, the kind of what I call ‘bad’ kind of procrastination, people don’t resist launching project or entering relationships or whatever, because bringing it into the world, necessarily entails an encounter with limitation. It’s always more pleasant to think about the ‘perfect’ article I’m going to write, then to write the article because writing the article cannot measure up to the perfect fantasy.
Q: How can we embrace, rather than fear, our finitude?
[Oliver Burkeman]: This argument that we need to embrace our finiteness to be creative and to focus on what matters, it is certainly opposed to some notion of eternal life where you just keep on going in your current state forever.
From at least some versions of Christianity you get this notion that there is a timeless realm to which you are headed, but the current one is still extremely limited and finite. Your job in the current one is to embrace your finitude, but to do things for the glorification of God because later on you will get your reward. In Buddhism, as I understand it, there is this infinite, and your highest goal is to dissolve into it and to be so finite, that you step off the wheel of taking finite form.
The longing for infinity, the longing that goes beyond our finitude is an essential part of everything that we are doing here. This being distinct from the confusion on delusion that, you have all the time in the world while you’re on the planet. The way that I’m talking about the infinite realm of possibilities in this book is a way of keeping the sense of the infinite alive, because it’s there all the time, like the infinite realm of what we could do, compared to our fight finitude is always present and haunting us.
There’s an important distinction between keeping your mind on something infinite as a source of inspiration, or as part of some wider cosmology, versus the thing that so many of us go through our lives doing.
[Vikas: Why then do we waste time doom-scrolling on social media, or finding comfort in the menial?]
[Oliver Burkeman]: To feel the fact of our limitation… that every choice we make means neglecting other choices… that we probably can’t fulfil all the expectations that the world has of us… it’s overwhelming! So, we distract ourselves to cope.
Evolution has no particular interest in your living authentically or being fulfilled and if comfort is the easiest way to keep you going from day to day, then evolution will be ‘designed’ to seek comfort and you will have to actively overcome that.
Q: What does it mean to use our time well?
[Oliver Burkeman]: I think about moments in life… caring for my son in the few months after he was born…. helping friends through difficult times… these are the moments where you have that deep, intuitive sense of being in the right place, doing the right thing – even if what you’re doing may not be particularly ‘fun,’ and in some cases may be very sad and unpleasant. That is a felt-sense of spending your time on the right thing, though very difficult to quantify.
We have to think beyond the obvious. We all know that we need good relationships, enough sleep, time in nature, awe, wonder, we all know that… the interesting question is why we don’t feel naturally inclined to go in these directions in our daily lives.
I’m speaking as someone who has been on the road of trying productivity hacks, apps, and everything that asserts to be able to make me 10x faster at working. I get excited about those things – but some of the most important things in life – in fact – a lot of the most important things in life, don’t come from moving faster. When you do nothing, you aren’t in this nihilistic state!
Keep perspective… When you look at the history of the cosmos, the difference between having several decades left and having several months left begins to seem less significant.